‘Palm Springs’ Parashat Mattot-Masaei 5778

Am Yisrael camped at 42 different locations during their 40-year sojourn in the Sinai Dessert. These campsites are enumerated one-by-one in the opening verses of Parashat Masaei. Nearly all of the campsites appear in an identical template: “They journeyed from Campsite-X and they camped at Campsite-Y.” The Torah appends to a few of the campsites a short snippet describing an important event that occurred there. For instance, regarding Refidim we are told [Bemidbar 33:14] “They journeyed from Alush and camped at Refidim, and there was no water for the people to drink.” In the original story, as told back in Parashat Beshalach, Moshe hits a rock and the people have drinking water for the next 40 years.

One campsite, Elim, strays from the standard template [Bemidbar 33:9]: “They journeyed from Marah and arrived at Elim and in Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees and they camped there”. Am Yisrael “arrive” at Elim, they find an oasis, and only then do they “camp there”. Why is this campsite different from all other campsites?

Rav Yaakov, the son of Rabbeinu Asher, writing in the “Ba’al haTurim”, explains that the fact that the Torah writes that Am Yisrael “arrived” at Elim before they “camped there” means that they did not originally intend to stay there. Elim was just a rest stop at the side of the road. They were meant to stop there briefly for a rest room break and perhaps for some Starbucks coffee. Only after the people saw the water springs and the palm trees did they decide to extend their stay. Elim was the perfect vacation spot: it had water, food, and room for three million people to camp out. According to the Ibn Ezra, Elim was such a nice vacation spot that Am Yisrael stayed there for nearly three weeks[1].

Something does not make sense. Am Yisrael had just crossed the Red Sea, irreversibly severing their ties to Egypt. The next stop should have been Mount Sinai to receive the Torah and then on to the Land of Israel. As pretty as Elim was, was it really necessary to stop there for a month? The Ibn Ezra proposes that the sweet waters of Elim served as a contrast to the bitter waters of Marah, the campsite that preceded Elim[2]. The Ramban does not accept this thesis because the story of the bitter waters at Marah is not mentioned in the list of the forty-two campsites in Parashat Masaei, while the story of the palm springs at Elim is. There must have been something special about Elim beyond its date palms.

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, asks a question that I had been asking myself. The population of Am Yisrael at the exodus was about 600,000 men between the ages of twenty and sixty. Given general population statistics, the total number of men, women, and children must have been around 3,000,000 people. What are 3,000,000 people going to do with seventy date palms? Last month my family attended a “Cherry Festival” in Gush Etzion, in which thousands of people were bussed into cherry orchards where they picked cherries to their hearts’ delight. The problem was that even though there were hundreds of cherry trees all laden with fruit, the large number of visitors had picked virtually all of the low-hanging fruit. In order to get to the cherries, my children literally had to climb the trees. Now imagine three million people picking dates from seventy measly trees. Most people would have walked away with nothing. Rav Sorotzkin explains that Elim was one giant miracle. Seventy palm trees were magically able to feed three million people and twelve springs provided them with drinking water for three solid weeks.

Elim had always been designated to be a miraculous place. The Midrash Mechilta teaches that Elim had exactly twelve springs of water, the same number as the Tribes of Israel. It had exactly seventy date trees, the same as the number of Elders of Israel and the number of people who went down to Egypt with Yaakov Avinu. And the trees and the springs never ran dry! Elim was not Palm Springs – it was Disneyland.

Am Yisrael are so enamoured by the miracles at Elim that they do not want to leave. The Torah [Shemot 15:27] tells us, “They camped there by (al) the water”. It is linguistically feasible to translate the verse as “They camped there because of (al)[3] the water”. They could not bring themselves to leave behind all of that water and all of that food. They could not bring themselves to leave behind all of those miracles. Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch notes that after Am Yisrael left Elim, they never encountered another place like it.

According to Rav Sorotzkin, Elim was an essential stop on the way to the Land of Canaan. Am Yisrael had to stop there because they, only recently freed from two hundred and ten years of bondage, “needed miracles at every stop in order to strengthen their belief”. They lacked the spiritual sophistication required to recognize Hashem through nature and they were not yet ready to believe in Him. Their extended vacation in Disneyland inculcated them with enough miracles such that denial of the Divine was no longer an option.

Rav Sorotzkin’s explanation seems to run counter to the explanation of the Ba’al HaTurim, that Am Yisrael were not originally meant to camp at Elim. Rav Sorotzkin posits that the stop at Elim taught them a necessary lesson, meaning that Elim must have been a pre-planned stop. This, then, reopens our original question: Why does Elim diverge from the standard “They journeyed from Campsite-X and they camped at Campsite-Y” template? I propose that Elim was a sort of psychological evaluation test. The Netziv of Volozhn, writing in the preface (hakdama) of his elucidation of the Book of Bemidbar, teaches that the years wandering in the desert were designed to wean Am Yisrael off overt miracles and to acclimatize them to the recognition of Hashem working through nature[4]. For instance, the Netziv compares the war against Amalek with the wars against the Amorite kings, Sichon and Og. In the war against Amalek, waged a month after the exodus, Am Yisrael are victorious when Moshe raises his hands and everyone looks skywards. In the war against the Amorites, waged forty years later, Am Yisrael are victorious because they are better soldiers than the Amorites. The stop at Elim is required in order to diagnose Am Yisrael’s psyche. Had they said, “Yes, this is fun, but we want to go to Israel”, then their stop at Elim would have been short. The fact that they spent so much time there was indicative of their low spiritual level and of the hard work that would be required in order for them to be able to enter the Land of Canaan without the need for shock and awe at every turn. When it was determined that Am Yisrael needed the miracles of Elim, then Elim became a necessary stop.

The author Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This quote leads us to a fascinating article called, “The Limits of Technological Superiority”, recently written by Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen. Gen. Hacohen contends that technology alone cannot guarantee military victory: “Technology has a calming effect in that it ostensibly eliminates the need for personal vigilance, resourcefulness, and responsibility. It seems to allow us to overcome the uncontrollable randomness of the human spirit, which has always been difficult to gauge in times of crisis and war. Soldiers, like athletes and artists, have always been aware of the critical dependence on inspiration and ‘hidden power’ that brings them to the peak of achievement in critical moments.” Incredibly effective systems like Iron Dome tend to give Israelis a warm fuzzy feeling that our scientists will eventually come up with a solution to every threat we will ever face – rockets, tunnels, balloons and whatever comes next. Gen. Hacohen argues that springs and date palms will never be a substitute for initiative, inspiration and faith. It took Am Yisrael forty years to figure this out. How long will it take us?


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana

[1] This can be calculated using simple mathematics, see Shemot [16:1].

[2] “They came to Marah but they could not drink water because it was bitter… [Moshe] cried out to Hashem, [He] showed him some wood, he cast it into the water and the water became sweet.” [Shemot 15:23-25]

[3] Similarly, Meriva (Quarrel) was named [Shemot 17:7] “because of (al) the quarrel of the children of Israel”

[4] My thanks to Rav Daniel Fine for pointing this out to me.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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